Making Almost Any Motorcycle a Touring Motorcycle

Make Your Motorcycle a Touring Bike

A lot of people think they cannot take a long trip on their motorcycle because it is “not the right kind of motorcycle.”    Bosh to that, I say. If your motorcycle is capable of maintaining the pace of modern traffic, then you can take a longer trip on it.  You just need to have the right “stuff.” 

Keep in mind that the pace of modern traffic on a freeway in California is 75 mph or more, but that is the extreme.  For most of the time a motorcycle that can maintain 60mph will be just fine.  Slower than some others, but are you traveling to have the adventure and breathe in the fun, or just to see how rapidly it can be over?

You can opt for a “touring” motorcycle, of course, and there is nothing at all wrong with that. A Honda Goldwing or a Harley-Davidson Ultra or a BMW K 1600 or a myriad of other choices will whisk you in supreme comfort for as many miles as you want to go. My point is that such a bike is not required.

If you like meandering on smaller highways, such a bike may seem too gargantuan to you, and you will be reminded of the girth at every gas station or when you need to maneuver it around with the engine off.  There are so many other options.

Beyond that, perhaps it comes down to how you visualize yourself on such a trip.  To borrow some thoughts from Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, this may come down to whether you are a classicist or a romantic.  In this theoretical place, the classicist imagines a long trip with everything taken care of. A large motorcycle with heated grips, fairing, communications connectivity, the entire palette of technological assists.   The romantic goes for the rose-tinted image of the solo rider on a simple machine cruising this great land, or a small group of friends enjoying a ride and the camaraderie of a shared adventure.

I am definitely a romantic. I first envisioned myself on such a trip in 1967, and that first adventure took place with a friend in 1968.   All of my trips since have lived up to the fantasy, and I can think of nowhere else in my life where the reality so closely matched my dreams aforehand.

Because of that, I happen to be attracted to, or perhaps addicted to, the motorcycle experience sans bulk and a windshield.  Some have told me it is not possible to tour on a motorcycle with no windshield, and yet I have enjoyed several cross-country tours on a variety of machines similarly naked to the wind.  I prefer to know exactly where the wind is coming from, and most windshields bring with them a degree of visual distortion as well as buffeting from either side that can alter continuously based on the conditions.  I prefer the plain unvarnished reality of the wind coming from the front.  Having said that, I have preferred a full face helmet since the first Bell Star model appeared all those decades ago.

Sticking just to motorcycles I have owned, my multi-state and sometimes multi-country (if you count Canada) rides have included a Yamaha TDS-3 250cc, (OK, that one had a windshield, but it was essentially a road racing fairing), a Honda 450 Street Scrambler, a Yamaha XS 750D triple, a Kawasaki ZX12R, a Triumph Sprint (small windshield), a Triumph Speed Triple, and (currently) a Triumph Bonneville T 120.

Yes, you do have to make concessions. When I was younger, blessed with the benign ignorance and optimism of youth, I took off for Minnesota or California or Florida with no tool kit, first aid kit, tire repair kit, or (long ago) cell phone.  I never had a problem, but I cannot recommend this.  Now I carry at least a small first aid kit, air compressor, and tire repair kit, which does take up space to be sure.

Amusingly, I am now going backwards on this. My new Triumph has a tool “kit” stashed behind a side panel. It has one tool – that used to adjust the rear shocks. I toss in a small wrench or two and hope for the best.  In like fashion, a T 120 has tube tires, so I leave the air compressor behind and hope for the best with the “slime” in the tires.

I have added to that a cell phone and an AAA membership with 200 miles of free towing.

How to pack and what to pack?  Depends on your needs and desires of course, but let’s assume you are leaving the camping gear behind.  I’ll admit that camping is more romantic, and I have spent years in that realm, but the advancing concerns of elderliness and a clean credit card with an enormous limit as strong enticements for motels. I retain some romanticism by seeking out older and smaller motels, which in my experience are far more interesting. Cheaper, as well.

If you are wearing your ATGATT gear every day, which I trust you are, all you need for clothes is some t-shirts, socks, undies, and a warm sweater and perhaps a liner for your jacket.  Most gear these days is at least sort of waterproof, so I choose to opt for benign chance and perhaps a change or route if needed.

I have a friend who takes a shower in his clothes at a motel each evening, and then rolls them carefully in towels until dry, and repeats this the next day. He carries about one change of clothes this way, but most will never feel the need (or have the desire) to do this.

The famous moto-journalist Peter Egan has a fine idea in this regard.  He packs for each trip some of  the ratty t-shirts he finds at the bottom of the drawer, and then simply discards them as he goes. A trip will often provide a great excuse to purchase a new t-shirt or two, after all, and most of the time the shirt your wearing is not visible anyway as it is under your jacket.

I am a real fan of the tank bag. If you’re fortunate enough to have a steel fuel tank, any number of magnetic bags on offer will do the trick. I never bother with the extra security strap, as I have never had one slip.  I also used one of these on my Yamaha 750 for 22 years with no discernible wear to the paint.  Of course, the tank usually had about five coats of wax on it and that bike had excellent quality paint in terms of depth and finish. If your bike has a plastic or fiberglass surface with a steel tank underneath, there are all manner of tank bags for sale with various arrangements of straps and harnesses to attach them securely.

As for carrying the rest of your chattels and what that looks like, here are two examples.

2006 Triumph Speed Triple:  I owned this bike for eleven years and ran up almost 50,000 miles on it, including trips to Minnesota and back and several three day excursions hither and yon.  I ordered the “bikini” fairing for it when purchased, and such a fairing provides just a little bit of wind break.  It’s mostly for appearance, and that was the reason I ordered it.  However, that fairing and a pretty large Triumph tank bag did provide more protection from the wind that you would expect, while leaving my full-face helmet in the wind.

The tank bag was used for stuff I needed at any moment. My wallet if I was wearing my leather pants, a throat warmer, sunglasses, hat, perhaps a second pair of gloves, and the all-important pipe and tobacco for quality musing time at rest stops.

To carry the bulkier gear, I purchased a Ventura rack system.  This comes as a set of “L” brackets which are specific to a particular model. They attach under the seat to the sides of the frame, or the muffler mounts on a Speed Triple, and end as a pair of hollow tubes sticking up behind the bike. Into those tubes you insert either a small upright with a parcel grid, or a very tall upright with parcel grid.  There are knurled knobs with locking washers to lock them in place.

I used the small one most of the time, with a magnetic tail pack. That was enough, with the tank bag, for anything I would need for a day or three.  For longer trips, on went the tall upright, and then two large packs, essentially backpacks, that zip together and slide down over the upright.  You can purchase either a single or a double bag. I started with the single. After a year there was a zipper issue. I could have replaced the bag for free under warranty but opted up for the double. With this rig I was able to ride from Seattle to Minnesota for a high school reunion and back, taking almost three weeks in total, with plenty of storage space.  The Speed Triple as tourer? Job done.

I traded the bike in with the L brackets attached, but kept the two options for the luggage racks and the double bag.  All together the full meal deal would cost about $600, but it you are interested in this sort of thing I will sell you the double bags and the two racks for $200.  You would then need to order the L brackets for your specific make and model. My bags are black and like new. Let me know if you are interested.

Along the way I picked up some other items that were handy for touring.  I purchased a new throttle cable and a new clutch cable, because you never can tell.  I still have them, and if you have a Speed Triple, make me an offer!  I also have a battery that was used for 30 minutes (it’s a long story), and an extra set of mirrors.                   

2016 Triumph Bonneville T 120:  I took this on a three week romp to California this past summer, just after having the first service.  A Nelson-Rigg magnetic tank bag is smaller than what I was used to on the Speed Triple, but suffices. For the back I purchased Cortech set of saddlebags with a matching top bag that snaps into the saddlebags. I am now set for trips of any length I am likely to take for many years to come.

If you have a motorcycle, a summer ride of many days duration on your steed will change your life. The destination is almost irrelevant, but I would recommend the roads less traveled.

You need not wait until you can purchase the “right” bike, as it is probably already sitting in your garage or carport.  You just need to plan ahead and purchase the bag capacity you need.  And in this as in so many other things, less is more. You need less carrying capacity that you think.  If you have a Speed Triple I can make it easier for you.

It is now November.   Let’s think about next summer. To the maps, Watson!


Copyright 2016                                          David Preston   


About david

I am a 74 year old motorsports nut who lives in Snohomish, Washington. After a 31 year career as an English teacher, I segued into a self-created job in the motorsports business. Now retired, I was involved in customer relations for Ride West BMW in Seattle, after almost 10 years of similar work for the Cycle Barn MotorSports Group. I own, at the current time, a Triumph Rocket 3 (2020), a 2020 Triumph Bonneville, and a 2016 Ford Focus ST. What else would you like to know?
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1 Response to Making Almost Any Motorcycle a Touring Motorcycle

  1. So true… It’s easy to over-think the experience… You allude to a time when motorcycle design was not so diverse and specialized… The categorization of motorcycle ‘genre’ in marketing rhetoric has created a false sense of need for specialization… As long as the motorcycle is capable of getting from point A to point B and C, etc, it boils down to how quickly you get to your points of destination and how comfortable that journey will be… As you state, all of the accouterments needed to facilitate that journey have been codified by a myriad of outfitters…

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